Although it’s essentially codified in the very existence of this column, there are many, many movies which mean something incredibly important to us at one point in our lives, and something entirely different later on. And with few exceptions, I’ve personally been able either to persevere in my affection through all logic and rationality of how good or bad youthful favorites are, or simply be lucky enough to have chosen films that as an adult I can argue for and justify. But on the eve of the release for American Reunion, it not only seemed appropriate to revisit the original “American Pie,” it personally seemed necessary.
I first saw “American Pie” when I was about 24 years old and I immediately loved it. I was always a fan of teen comedies, and that film seemed to operate in a space that connected it to my ‘80s favorites. But until recently, it had probably been seven or eight years – or more — since I’d last seen the original film, and my experiences with the sequels, in particular “American Wedding,” left me unenamored with the prospect of revisiting them again. But 13 years later, does “American Pie” still hold up?
Released on July 9, 1999, “American Pie” was a massive upon its release, bringing in more than $235 million during its theatrical run. Although that number is impressive by almost any standard, the fact that it cost only $11 million to make made its revenues even more staggering. Meanwhile, it received mixed reviews from critics, and currently enjoys only a 60 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works
It’s easy to look at the series as a whole and see only the raunchy hijinks, but the core of the films – or at least the first film – was in creating an ensemble of characters that audiences actually liked, if not fully cared about. Although the four guys at the center of the story conspire to dupe women into having sex with them by the end of the school year, they quickly realize that their tactics are basically ineffectual, if not disastrous, and eventually learn something about themselves through the process of, in the crudest possible terms, getting laid.
Moreover, the film has a uniquely attuned sense of morality about its male and female characters, and while it certainly indulges in prurient fun, such as the Nadia set piece in Jim’s room, it also doles out punishments or comeuppances that are equivalent to their transgressions. The film definitely comes from a young male’s perspective, but it’s not purely exploitative or misogynistic towards women.
In terms of the cast, the filmmakers ideally cast almost all of the roles, but what sort of makes the core characters work are the ones that surround them – starting with Stifler. Seann William Scott’s performance as Stifler is a thing of beauty: he’s the kind of guy that you hate if he can do anything to affect your life, but you absolutely love if you can watch him impact the lives of others. There’s a remarkable bravado to the performance – and the character – that Scott really nails, and he steals a lot of scenes in which he’s meant to be sort of background. But as Oz, Chris Klein is an effective and really delicate counterbalance to Stifler’s horny jock, because it’s clear he’s not like that, but it takes the attention and empowerment that Heather bestows upon him simply through their chemistry, which isn’t merely well-constructed but well-performed.
But ultimately, what “American Pie” gets right that few other teen comedies do is that there’s emotional substance to the journey, and it gives their ambitions deeper meaning, silly as it may seem to suggest. The moral of the film isn’t that “getting laid before the end of high school is awesome,” but that a person’s first time can be any number of different things – a sweet expression of two people finding common ground (Oz and Heather), the realization of a relationship that was meaningful, but must come to an end (Kevin and Vicky), a meaningless but oddly overwhelming fling with a person you have no real feelings for (Jim and Michelle), or a comical wish-fulfillment romp that embodies every ridiculous fantasy you ever imagined (Finch and Stifler’s mom). While that’s admittedly not a deeply profound message, it’s one that gives much more consideration to the core elements of teen sex comedy than most of the ones before it, and almost all of them which came after.
What Doesn’t Work
The film is sort of inescapably dated, so the alt-rock soundtrack is mostly corny with occasional crappiness, and the technology and sort of pop-cultural world in which these characters live is far less savvy or sophisticated than it might be for kids now. That’s not necessarily a shortcoming, but it’s an element of the film that is un-ignorable. Meanwhile, there are a few lines here and there that land with a thud – just from a narrative perspective – but thankfully the film manages to mine humor out of some of the worst howlers (“suck me, beautiful”), and overall it seems faithful and accurate to the behavior and speech of teenagers desperate to be older than they really are. (I mean, really, third base feels like “warm apple pie?”)
“American Pie” holds up not just as a good example of a teen sex comedy, but as a genuinely good film, with solid performances, likeable characters, and a story that audiences can easily care about. Directors Chris and Paul Weitz, who went on to make films like “Down to Earth” and “About a Boy” before going their separate ways, were filmmakers with a real vision for the material – such as it can have one – and they do an excellent job bringing it to life with real emotion and entertainment value that isn’t purely based on empty-headed titillation. Overall, “American Pie” is most remarkable because although it feels so much like a part of its time, it has a timelessness that ranks it among John Hughes’ work and other luminaries of the genre, because it taps into essential feelings that teenagers have, observes them with sympathy and humor, and gives them something to think about even as it delivers what’s expected.
Leave your own memories of “American Pie” in the comments below.